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Exploring the Rule of Law in the Croatian Legal Landscape

Croatian Legal Landscape

The rule of law serves as a foundational pillar in any robust democracy, ensuring justice, fairness, and equality within a society. In the context of Croatia, a nation rich in history and culture, the legal landscape has undergone significant transformations in recent years. This blog aims to provide an in-depth exploration of the intricate facets of the rule of law within the Croatian legal system, unravelling its historical underpinnings, contemporary challenges, and ongoing endeavours to fortify its foundations.

Understanding the rule of law in Croatia necessitates a journey through its historical evolution, shaping the contours of its contemporary legal system. Having gained independence in the early 1990s, Croatia embarked on a quest to construct a legal framework reflective of democratic ideals and protective of individual rights. The current legal system draws inspiration from continental European legal traditions, international legal norms, and its legal heritage, forming a unique legal system.

 

Foundations of the Rule of Law

The rule of law in Croatia finds its bedrock in the nation's Constitution, a document that delineates the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. The judiciary assumes a pivotal role in upholding the rule of law, ensuring the just and consistent application of laws. The separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches is a fundamental tenet of the Croatian legal system, preventing the concentration of power and fostering a system of checks and balances that underpins the democratic ethos.

The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia plays a pivotal role in upholding the rule of law, specifically through Criminal Law. Article 3 establishes the paramount values of the constitutional order, including the rule of law, which serves as the foundation for interpreting the Constitution and other regulations. Article 5 further specifies the principle of constitutionality and legality, emphasizing the obligation for everyone to adhere to the Constitution, respect the law, and uphold the legal order of the Republic of Croatia. The principle of constitutionality and legality represents a formal hierarchy, requiring a democratic political system that safeguards human rights and fundamental freedoms in citizen-state interactions. This principle protects individuals' rights against arbitrary state intervention, ensuring their security and promoting autonomy by allowing individuals to plan their lives. Defining the highest values of the constitutional order enables teleological interpretation, departing from grammatical interpretation in the process of 'judicialization of political decision-making.' This activates the activist role of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, which sometimes creatively interprets the Constitution, particularly its highest values, and provides teleological interpretations.

 

International Collaboration

Croatia, recognizing the critical importance of international collaboration in reinforcing the rule of law, actively cultivates partnerships by participating in various international treaties and agreements. As a member of the European Union, Croatia plays a proactive role in dialogues and exchanges with fellow Member States. These engagements involve not only the sharing of best practices but also a commitment to aligning Croatia's legal framework with the stringent standards set by the EU. Additionally, Croatia is an active participant in international legal forums and organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations, fostering a broader global perspective on legal principles. Participation in these collaborations holds immense significance for Croatia's legal landscape. By actively engaging in international treaties, Croatia ensures its legal system remains in harmony with global norms, facilitating a more robust adherence to the rule of law. The exchange of ideas, experiences, and legal methodologies with other nations further enriches Croatia's approach, contributing to the continual evolution and enhancement of its legal practices. Moreover, these collaborations create an environment of shared values, emphasizing the interconnectedness of legal systems worldwide and reinforcing the principles that underpin the rule of law on an international scale.

 

The 2023 Rule of Law Report

According to the EU 2023 Rule of Law Report, Croatia exhibits perceived independence levels below 30%, while Finland, Denmark, Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg demonstrate notably high levels exceeding 75%. However, caution is advised in interpreting such data, as the authors of the report emphasize the need for critical assessment within the relevant context. In Croatia, efforts are underway to address concerns about judicial remuneration and enhance electronic communication tools. However, challenges in efficiency and quality persist, leading to increased trial durations. A recent judiciary strike in Croatia contributed to prolonged court proceedings. Moreover, a new strike in the judiciary has been announced for January 22, 2024.

Despite the adoption of electronic communication systems, delays in corruption case proceedings persist, with pending legislation to address this issue. Codes of Conduct for Members of Parliament in Croatia underscore a commitment to ethical standards. Ongoing discussions about new lobbying legislation in several countries, including Croatia, reflect a collective effort to enhance transparency and accountability. However, Croatia has yet to take further measures since the 2021 legislative reform to strengthen the public tender procedure for state advertising in local and regional media. Media pluralism is classified as 'high risk' or 'very high risk.' While Croatia has revised the law on access to information, delays persist in implementation. Progress has been made in addressing recommendations from the People’s Ombudsperson, but challenges remain in ensuring unfettered access to information. In response to recommendations, the Constitutional Court in Croatia eliminated periodic security checks on judges, with similar changes expected for state attorneys through upcoming amendments.

 

Challenges and Reforms

Despite considerable progress, challenges persist in the complete realization of the rule of law in Croatia. Issues such as corruption, protracted legal proceedings, and the imperative for judicial independence continue to be areas of concern. Determined efforts are underway to address these challenges, with ongoing reforms seeking to enhance transparency, efficiency, and accountability within the legal system. Anti-corruption measures, including the establishment of specialized anti-corruption bodies (e.g., Conflict of Interest Commission, USKOK), exemplify Croatia's commitment to eradicating corruption from its institutions. Initiatives to streamline legal procedures and reduce case backlogs are pivotal steps toward ensuring timely and equitable access to justice for all citizens, fostering a legal environment that instils confidence in the rule of law.

However, some corrupt practices remain. In October 2023, Croatia faced the African swine flu crisis in Slavonia and Baranja, resulting in the euthanasia of swine. Agroproteinka d.d., a company owned partially by the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs G.G.R. and predominantly by his family, handled the animal removal. In addition, in December 2023, the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) in Zagreb initiated an investigation against former minister G.Ž. and a former Ministry of Regional Development and European Union Funds employee. They are suspected of abusing their positions by improperly allocating private expenses to the Minister's Cabinet representation costs. In Croatia this December (2023), a scandal unfolded, resulting in the dismissal of the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Dr. F., over a media financing controversy. Recent revelations include transcripts of conversations between J. L., special adviser to the Minister of Economy, and journalist M. Vlahović. In these conversations, L. allegedly pressured the journalist to compel the director of Mreža TV to personally pay him half of the advertising budget from state companies. Prime Minister A.P. promptly responded by dismissing Dr. D. F. and his adviser J.L., terminating L.'s role as a special adviser. Following the publication of this case in the weekly newspaper Nacional, USKOK confirmed an investigation into the matter.

The events underscore a complex web of controversies surrounding high-profile figures and questionable practices in Croatia, implying corruption. However, these cases also exemplify the fact that the public, journalists, and institutions recognize when something is not in line with the legal system and the rule of law. This dual perspective provides a balanced understanding of the challenges faced by the country while acknowledging the role of awareness and accountability in addressing such issues.


Instead of the conclusion

The Croatian legal landscape manifests a commitment to the foundational principles of the rule of law, marked by a historical evolution and ongoing efforts to fortify its democratic foundations. Rooted in constitutional provisions, particularly Articles 3 and 5, the rule of law is upheld through a separation of powers, ensuring a system of checks and balances. Despite challenges highlighted in the 2023 Rule of Law Report, including perceived judicial independence concerns, Croatia actively engages in international collaborations, aligning its legal framework with EU standards and participating in legal forums like the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

Acknowledging challenges, ongoing reforms, and anti-corruption measures exemplify Croatia's dedication to transparency and justice. Notably, recent high-profile cases underscore the nation's commitment to addressing corruption issues. While challenges persist, the dual perspective of the public, journalists, and institutions serves as a crucial mechanism for upholding the rule of law.

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